Friday, June 23, 2017

A visit to Nîmes, the "Rome" of France

As I have shared before, we try to find opportunities to hook up with our cousins who live near Montpellier in someplace mutually convenient for them and us. So one Saturday, a few months back, neighbors Bob, Darlene, Ed and Gwen in tow, we headed to Nîmes to meet up with them for lunch.

Nîmes has a very long and rich history, dating back to the Roman Empire when the city was home to between 50-60,000 people. There are several famous monuments, such as the Nîmes Arena and the Maison Carrée and because of this, Nîmes is often referred to as the French Rome.

The town derives its name from a spring in the Roman village. The Nîmes coat of arms depicts a crocodile chained to a palm tree with the inscription COL NEM, for Colonia Nemausus, meaning the "colony" or "settlement" of Nemausus, the local Celtic god. Roman legion veterans who served under Julius Caesar on his Nile campaigns were given plots of land around Nîmes to cultivate after fifteen years of soldiering.

Saint Paul church seen below was built between 1835 and 1849 in Neo-Romanesque style by Charles Questel, and classified as a historical monument in 1909. The organ was built in 1848.

Saint Paul Church

The Maison Carrée (Square House) seen below, is the best preserved of the Roman temples still standing. It was built under Augustus' (late 1C BC) reign and inspired by the Temple of Apollo in Rome.

Maison Carrée

Consecrated to the imperial cult and dedicated to Augustus grandsons, the temple faced the forum and was surrounded by a portico of finely carved columns.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée sits on a 2.85 meter high podium, it forms a rectangle almost twice as long as it is wide, measuring 26.42 meters by 13.54 meters. A large door (6.87 meters high by 3.27 meters wide) leads to a surprisingly small and windowless interior, where the shrine originally was. This now houses a tourist oriented film on the Roman history of Nîmes.

Maison Carrée

The Maison Carrée inspired the neoclassical Église de la Madeleine in Paris, St. Marcellinus Church in Rogalin, Poland, and in the United States, the Virginia State Capitol, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who had a stucco model made of the Maison Carrée while he was minister to France in 1785.

Maison Carrée

Saint Paul Church

Nîmes street

The Arena of Nîmes is a twin to the arena in Arles, most likely from the same period (late 1c - early 2c), an excellent example of the perfection attained by Roman engineers in designing and constructing extremely complex building. It demonstrates perfect symmetry: oval-shaped, it measures 133 meters long and 101 meters wide, with an arena of 68 by 38 meters.

From the exterior, you see two floors, each with 60 arches, 21 meters in total height, topped with an attic. At the top, pre-drilled stones were positioned to overhang so that long poles could be hung over the arena. A huge canvas canopy was then attached to these poles, thereby providing protection for the spectators against the sun and bad weather.

Arena of Nîmes

In Roman times, the arena could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas or maeniana. Each was accessed via a gallery and hundred of stairwells and passages called vomitories. This clever arrangement meant that there was no risk of bottlenecks when the spectators flooded in.

The arena was designed so that everyone had an unrestricted view of the whole arena. Several galleries were located beneath the arena, and were accessed by trap doors and a hoist-lift system. As a result, the decorative effects, animals and gladiators could access the arena during the games.

Interior of Nîmes Arena

The arena was remodeled in 1863 to serve as a bullring. The arena of Nîmes is the site of bullfights during the Ferias de Nîmes, a popular festival centered on Spanish-style bullfighting held twice each year in Nîmes, the 1st Feria from Wednesday before Pentecost to Pentecost Monday and the 2nd Feria on the third Friday, Saturday and Sunday of September.

View from arena through an arch entryway

The exits from the arena were called vomitorias because they permitted the crowd to exit the arena in a speedy manner.

Arena Vomitory

Arena Vomitory

The Lycée (high school) Alphonse-Daudet seen below was constructed in the 16th century as a hospice

Lycée (high school) Alphonse-Daudet

View of Lycée Alphonse-Daudet from the arena

Construction for Sainte-Perpétue et Sainte-Félicité de Nîmes church (the tower can be seen in the distance below) began in 1852. The first stone was laid by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. Construction was completed in 1854.

Interior of arena with view of Sainte-Perpétue et Sainte-Félicité de Nîmes church in the distance

The Nîmes Cathedral (Its formal French name is the "Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Castor de Nîmes") seen in the distance below is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to the local Saint Castor of Apt. The cathedral is the seat of the Bishops of Nîmes, Uzès and Alès.

The Nîmes Cathedral was built in 1096, suffered major damage during the Wars of Religion and was almost entirely rebuilt in the 19C. The cathedral is believed to stand on the site of the former temple of Augustus. It is partly Romanesque and partly Gothic in style.

View of the Nîmes Cathedral from the top row of the arena

The Tour Magne seen below in the distance sits on top of Mont Cavalier, the highest point in Nîmes. It is a vestige of the defenses built around the town. It is a 3-story polygonal tower 112 feet tall.

View of Tour Magne from the top of the arena

Interior walkway around the Nimes arena

Nîmes arena

Shirley with cousins Christine and Matthias and his friend Aurelie

Saint Paul Church

View of Sainte-Perpétue et Sainte-Félicité de Nîmes church in the distance

In case you are going to Nîmes and need a restaurant suggestion, we had an excellent lunch at Aux Plaisirs des Halles seen below, a restaurant designated as a Bib Gourmand by Michelin.

Aux Plaisirs des Halles

If you have time, besides the places I have highlighted in this post, you should plan to visit the Jardins de la Fontaine, 18th-century gardens in Nîmes, built in 1745 near the former western defensive ramparts of the city.

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